Frank McGuinness has a new play at the Abbey, his first novel has just been published, he lectures at university, and lunch is the working man’s take-out, ham roll, eaten between interview, phone calls and the next appointment, which is looming before the hour is up.
A good marketing person would tell McGuinness to push the goods and cut the small talk. But McGuinness is talking about tennis player Andy Murray and he’s sublimely distracted.
“When he won Wimbledon, I wept,” he says. “It was the vindication of Dunblane, the great tribute to his home town, after all it came through. I love the fact that he has triumphed.”
McGuinness’s fondness for the Scotsman isn’t random — McGuinness’s cousin lives in Dunblane and has a son who, like Murray, survived the Dunblane massacre.
He also admires the plain-speaking Scotsman’s refusal to perform in the celebrity circus and enjoys the consternation that causes the English press.
His admiration is no surprise — McGuinness has been giving voice to the straight-talkers of his native Donegal for years and his novel finds them in full flow. Arimathea, told through the voices of seven characters, opens with that of ten-year-old Euni O’Donovan, whose family are hosts to an Italian artist in town to paint the stations of the cross in the local church.
Euni is intrigued, but not overawed, by this unprecedented arrival to the Buncrana of 1950, and her observations have a directness between the innocence of youth and the cynicism of old age.
“She misses nothing and gives nobody any quarter,” says McGuinness. “She’s a Donegal woman.”
The story is inspired by the real-life visit of an Italian painter to McGuinness’s home town, Buncrana, to paint the stations of the cross, in 1900.
Gianni, the artist, has a profound effect on the characters, his sheer exoticism sparking sexual tension in the O’Donovan household. The novel is deeply funny about the absurdities of human behaviour, but the comedy creeps up unexpectedly because of the earnestness with which the characters recount their tales. It also gives religion a right roasting, although McGuinness coats his criticisms in a slightly surreal comedy.
Despite his own early departure from the Catholic Church, he says it is important not to mock.
“I am not dismissive of religion, because I come from a deeply religious background. My parents were very devout Catholics. I just believe I got away and questioned what they believe and I came up with a different system of living.
“But so much of culture has been shaped by the crises and dilemmas of religion and they have their absurd and nonsensical element. I hope I would have enough courtesy to take it seriously. Sometimes, comedy is very serious,” he says.
McGuinness didn’t consider that his novel — his first in a writing career of more than 30 years — would be published. He wrote it as research for his new play, The Hanging Gardens, about an author losing his mind to Alzheimer’s.
“I do a lot of research for all the plays and the gigantic bit of research for this was to write a novel,” he says. Research completed, he left his novel in a drawer and only a chance conversation with the head of Brandon publishers led to it being published.
It wasn’t the only research McGuinness conducted for the play: he interviewed people who have watched an elderly parent stricken by Alzheimer’s.
He calls the condition a “plague” and was shocked and moved by the cruelty it can inflict on the victim and those who care for them. In The Hanging Gardens, central character, Sam, also has a capacity for cruelty that may or may not be driven by his chaotic state of mind and the play watches how the vulnerabilities of the various family members come to the fore as they assemble to discuss his future.
“His whole capacity for telling stories, for spinning yarns, is now suddenly out of control. In a very terrifying way, the boundaries between fact and fiction are extremely blurred and he moves from one world to the other, with great dexterity at times, and, at the same time, he is causing havoc,” McGuinness says.
As with Arimathea, there is comedy, although the humour is dark. “I hope the audience laughs,” he says. “And that they’re shocked. I try to give them something more than they expect.”
The Hanging Gardens is McGuinness’s first play at the Abbey in 14 years and the return brings apprehension. Plays are a collaborative effort in their staging, he says, but the playwright is alone with an empty page and judgement will be made primarily on how he fills it.
He doesn’t spare his students, in the English department at UCD, from the warnings. “Discipline and graft,” he says will be their essential tools. But neither does he skimp on encouragement and he defies any suggestion that, in the current economic climate, young people would be better off studying biotechnology.
“You will learn an awful lot about yourself in the process of doing an English degree or an arts degree and certainly creative writing. It’s immensely demanding and you have to produce the goods.
“It’s instilling that sense of accomplishment and achievement that drives people on to better things. It’s as good to get it from the study of literature as it is from anything else. “Don’t apologise for doing it. It’s a fine challenge you’re presenting yourself with. Go for it.”
* Arimathea is out now (Brandon Press, €14.99). The Hanging Gardens runs at the Abbey, Dublin, until Nov 9.www.abbeytheatre.ie
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